This is the fifth in a series of exerts from a paper I wrote which attempts to offer a reading of several New Testament texts as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire. You can find the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.
Ekklesia, as John Dominic Crossan makes clear, is “the standard Pauline term for a Christian community” (165). Modern interpreters of the Bible have normally translated ekklesia as ‘church’ (Crossan, 165). However, translating ‘church’ from ekklesia is not only conceptually anachronistic, it is also a less than accurate description of what ekklesia meant in the first-century Greco-Roman world and what Paul, himself, had in mind. An ekklesia was not primarily a religious community, nor was its predominant focus of religious orientation. Ekklesia is yet another profoundly political term. “[T]he ekklsiaaterion,” Crossan continues, is “where the entire adult male citizenry joined in an assembly” (47). Thus, ekklesia, Crossan elaborates, “originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-governmental decisions” (165). An ekklesia was a “democratic deliberative body,” the collective assembly of a Greek city’s free-male citizens organized around political governance rather than religiosity (47). Yet, in Paul’s continued subversion of Roman imperial polity, the ekklesia created by Paul were representative of a political radicality. The ekklesia Paul championed were more radically democratic and radically egalitarian. In the Pauline ekklesia there was “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). In other words, the ekklesia of Christ followers severed all class divisions and antagonisms, offering a radical equality that broke down all barriers within the social (male/female), the political (slave/free), and the religious (Jew/Greek).
Paul seems to have understood that “Cities are…ecological entities, which have their own unique internal rules of behavior, growth, and evolution” and that “Like other ecosystems, cities are not the sum of their constituents” but are instead, “key examples of ermergent phenomena, in which each component contributes to but does not control the form and behavior of the whole” (Alberti et al. 1170). Thus, Paul’s goal, Warren Carter writes, was to create “rival assemblies,” rival ‘cities’, or rival ekklesia (92). Paul’s aim was to create politically orientated collectives that sought to communally embody the eco-political eschatology presented in the figure of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The Pauline ekklesia were not beholden to Roman ‘law’, or imperial politics but, were faithful to charis (“grace”/generosity/hospitality/charity/forgiveness/love), that is, the reciprocal sharing of communal resources in a sustainable and egalitarian manner (Rom. 6:14). The ‘Christian’ ekklesia functioned as, what Hakim Bey might call Temporary Autonomous Zones, or “islands in the net” (81). The ‘Christocentric’ ekklesia of Paul were seditiously defiant to the social relations and power structures of Rome, and could be likened to what Bey describes as “a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination)” (70). Ekklesia, in this regard, were, then, autonomous, self-governing socio-political collectives forming in spaces at the fringes and margins of culture, and within the crevices, cracks, and fissures of the Empire. As such, the Pauline ekklesia were non-hierarchical, non-authortarian, communities in opposition to the formalized systems of imperial control, who offered alternative methods of eco- politico-economic engagement.